Turtle Power

This story appears in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click below to read it in the issue. 

Story by JAIME LIN WEINSTEIN | Photography courtesy of TIBI    

Despite the general tendency toward apparel of a skin-baring nature, the turtleneck maintains a certain, lasting allure. Blame it on an association with the sense of comfort only a knit sweater brings to mind, especially when the temperature calls for covering up; or Steve Jobs, the tenacious tech mogul who is remembered for both his contributions to the consumer electronics field and for his wardrobe. High-end knitwear retailer St. Croix claimed that sales of its $175 “Style 1990” turtleneck doubled in just one day after Jobs’ death in October 2011. 

The now-iconic black turtleneck was actually crafted by Japanese designer Issey Miyake, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an image of Jobs in anything else since he created this personal uniform in the 1980s. If you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple co-founder you already know how he developed his distinguished daily attire after seeing Sony’s factory workers in uniform. While his own employees didn’t take to the idea of coordinated dress (Jobs had Miyake create a nylon jacket for his team that was vehemently rejected), he decided he would instead create a uniform for himself. “So I asked Issey to make me some of his black turtlenecks that I liked, and he made me like a hundred of them,” Jobs told Issacson. As for the reason behind always pairing them with Levi’s? The world may never know.

But the term “uniform” evokes thoughts of uniformity and sameness, and Jobs was known for change and innovation. Apple’s slogan “Think different” comes to mind. He has cited convenience and efficiency as the reasons behind the consistent look, but the choice of the turtleneck as his signature style may have deeper significance.

The turtleneck originally evolved from a need for warmth in peasant clothing during the Middle Ages. It was “a functional working men’s garment,” explains Beth Dincuff, assistant professor at Parsons The New School for Design, and it was long associated with the laboring class. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we saw those more economically advantaged donning the turtleneck — first by college football and rugby players, and eventually by the likes of Pablo Picasso and artists of the existentialist movement. “It was kind of a rejection of the idea of wearing a shirt and tie,” Dincuff says of the existentialist adoption of the working-man dress. 

Like all good fashion trends, counter-culture crusades have propelled the popularity of the turtleneck through the past half-century or so. And it has graced the torsos of the icons that drove change. Following the existentialists, it was the go-to garment of the anti-conformist youth of the Beat Generation, representing an inclination toward intellect over appearance (and memorialized on film by a turtleneck-clad Audrey Hepburn as Greenwich Village bohemia Jo Stockton in 1957’s Funny Face). The Beatles, for another example, are credited with changing the cultural landscape of the ’60s beyond their musical tastes — from promoting long hair to hallucinogens — and they wore black turtlenecks on the cover of their second studio album, “With the Beatles,” released in 1963. Then in the ’70s, American journalist and political activist Gloria Steinem was often seen in a turtleneck, adopting the androgynous look as a feminist statement of equality.

Though it may have lost some of its appeal sometime during the last decade due to an association with one too many sartorially challenged individuals highlighted on Awkward Family Photos, the high-collared pullover proved its staying power as a bona fide fashion trend on 2014’s Fall/ Winter Ready-to-Wear runways. Turtlenecks dominated Ralph Lauren’s collection where they made a refined pairing with pants and blazers, overcoats and furs; and even appeared as an evening look, in a snugger silhouette worn with a floor-length jersey skirt featuring a daring, thigh-high slit. Tibi’s turtlenecks — in solid black, baby blue and bright red — looked sleek with every- thing from a pinstripe suit to a pleated skirt over pants. Chunky, funnel-neck versions in mohair and what looked like a textured fleece stood out during the Helmut Lang show, and 3.1 Phillip Lim featured ribbed, cropped versions layered over silk button-downs.

These are examples of only the latest reincarnation of the trend; the turtleneck seems to be recycled in runway collections every few years. So why the high-fashion appeal? “It definitely frames the face beautifully,” Dincuff suggests. “It’s a very flattering look on a lot of people.” And who doesn’t want to look like Audrey Hepburn in a slim black turtleneck, dancing around a dimly lit downtown Parisian nightclub?